The sound of hammers and construction crews have become increasingly common east of Interstate 75 in Sarasota County, where once only cows and crops and a human, here and there, called home before.
East of I-75. The barrier between rural and urban. Cows and crop land vs. coffee shops and congestion.
Residents of that area have fought through the decades to “Keep the Country, Country,” often pointing to the concrete barrier of the interstate as the point of demarcation setting their lifestyle apart.
But with developments like Lakewood Ranch’s Waterside Place, Skye Ranch and eventually the Hi Hat Ranch development, that urban/rural boundary has proven to be as effective as France’s Maginot Line at stopping the German advance.
Thousands of residences are planned, new roads will crisscross former cattle pastures and retail will follow behind the home construction, transforming the rural landscape into a suburban area.
Developers argue it’s the natural progression once an area becomes as desirable as Sarasota, with its access to world renowned beaches, a quality school system and desirable cultural amenities like the Sarasota Orchestra.
But advocates of more restrained development don’t see a natural progression.
They see runaway growth, that will lead to congestion, urban sprawl and a diminished quality of life for people who have lived here for decades.
“An unmitigated disaster, a developer’s dream and a public nightmare,” Control Growth Now President Dan Lobeck said describing what’s happening east of the interstate.
Lobeck maintains he’s not against development, but wants it to be managed for the benefit of county residents.
He said that through the years the county’s long-range growth plan has been gutted and left mostly toothless through repeated changes approved by the Sarasota County Commission.
Lakewood Ranch, Sarasota County style
Laura Cole, a senior vice president at Lakewood Ranch, said Waterside Place will be a tremendous development for the area once it’s built, providing for both increased retail and residential needs for the Sarasota area.
All of Lakewood Ranch is east of I-75, but so far, the majority of that development has been built in Manatee County where “east of the interstate” doesn’t carry the same limits on development that the phrase does in Sarasota.
Waterside Place will be Lakewood Ranch’s first major commercial and residential development in Sarasota County. The infrastructure has already largely been built for the eventual 120,000 square feet of commercial and retail space.
Cole said that much of the demand for Lakewood Ranches development is self generated through careful planning that comes with a master-planned community.
She also notes that through the creation of a stewardship district, Lakewood Ranch pays for road construction and infrastructure improvements on the 33,000-acre development and that the property taxes the development generates helps pay for infrastructure not on the property.
She believes the stewardship district model is a less taxing way to fund infrastructure than other methods.
Taylor Morrison has been developing Cassia at Skye Ranch for roughly a year and opened Esplande at Skye Ranch at the beginning of August near the intersection of Clark Road and Lorraine Road east of I-75 with four model homes and a sales gallery.
The builder has reported that demand for the homes has been strong for the months, leading to the opening of Esplande and that demand remains strong after home construction started.
The local Realtor’s association has reported historic low number of homes for sale on the market, leading to the median sales price for single-family properties in Sarasota being pushed above the $400,000 mark for the first time in history.
Jason Besse, Taylor Morrison vice president of operations for the organization’s Sarasota division, said the area under construction is desirable for homebuyers.
“This area is a beautiful location plus, you have quick access to Lakewood Ranch, downtown Sarasota, Bradenton and numerous local attractions including beaches,” he said. “The market is hot, to say the least. There are a lot of factors to take into account when we’re talking about the market, but when we’re looking at supply-demand needs and the level of construction taking place, it’s incredible.”
Interest remains strong for Sarasota property and the area’s housing market is booming as homebuyers look to tap into the Florida lifestyle, he said.
“The secret is out that Sarasota is the place to live,” Besse said.
Lobeck, president of the Control Growth Now group, points directly to this demand as reasons the county should put the brakes on “uncontrolled growth.”
“We don’t have to drop the reins on development for people to want to move here,” he said. “They already want to move to Sarasota.”
He said that if the county would take a firmer hand in managing the growth, it will be to the benefit of residents in the long run.
Lobeck has a laundry list of things he thinks the County Commission should do, but at the top is “make growth pay it’s own way,” something he contends does not happen under the current board.
He would also like to see environmental lands and existing neighborhoods protected, something he doesn’t believe the county does well either.
Chris Baylis, a Realtor with Michael Saunders & Co. who specializes in properties east of the interstate, said it depends on who you ask if development of land east of I-75 is a good thing.
There’s no denying, she said, the demand for residential real estate is there. But many of the people she sold houses in that area, moved there because they liked the slower pace, larger parcels and the rural lifestyle.
But change is coming, she knows.
“One day you have cattle, the next day it’s infrastructure,” she said. “Many people are rethinking where they are living.”
Baylis said she’s heard from some people that they are deciding it may be better to move farther from development into Desoto County.
Becky Ayech, a resident of Old Myakka in east Sarasota County for the past 42 years, doesn’t believe in running away since “the tail will always follow.”
The 68-year-old moved to Sarasota with her husband from a farm in Indiana and chose to settle in Old Myakka at the end of Fruitville Road because she loves the rural lifestyle.
She has sheep and chickens and grows her own food.
“That’s the way I’ve always lived,” she said.
While Ayech has a folksy way about her, she attacks any development project east of the interstate with a country smile and a ton of facts, pointing out that, in her opinion, so far she’s winning as the area she lives looks much the same as it did more than 40 years ago.
“We win a lot,” she said. “You just don’t know about it because you don’t see the development.”
But some of her biggest challenges to date – a growth amendment to Hi Hat Ranch – is coming before the County Commission in the beginning of September that could allow for greater density closer to her than ever before.